Class Warfare

The army of part-time professors teaching at the region’s colleges are merely working stiffs at the bottom of an enormous and lucrative enterprise.

One Thursday afternoon last spring, I was wrapping up my expository-writing class at Bentley University when a woman walked into the classroom and strode straight up to me. Judging from her looks, I thought she might be a sophomore or junior. “Hi, Professor Becker!” she said, sticking out her hand. As my students shuffled out around us, she told me that she was from Adjunct Action, a campaign run by the Service Employees International Union. From a recent email, I knew she and her ilk were trying to organize adjuncts like me. Together with the SEIU, they had already successfully organized adjuncts at several Washington, DC–area colleges, and the Boston group had made inroads at Tufts, Lesley, and Northeastern.

“How much money do you make?” she boldly asked.

I stopped stuffing my laptop into my bag, tucked my hair behind my ears, and briefly studied her lineless face. Given that she was stalking me, I suspected she already knew the answer, but when the room was empty, I told her: “Five thousand per class.”

“How do you live on that?” she asked.

Her question pissed me off. How could someone so young ask me something so audacious? I was also secretly embarrassed. In truth, no one can really live on my pay. She continued pelting me with personal questions: “What are you doing about benefits? Do you teach anywhere else?”

I didn’t have time to hang out and talk—I needed to tear out of there to meet my boys after school. I told her I had to leave and tried to nonchalantly walk past. She kept stride and continued, “You don’t have 10 minutes to talk about how to make life better for adjuncts?” Obviously this chick didn’t have kids and never had to meet an elementary school bus.

Truth is, I never thought I had much use for unions. I once joined one to teach high school English in the late 1990s, but that’s because I would have been charged a fee to opt out. Instead, I’d set out to become a professor, someone who had no need for striking and sign waving. I earnestly built a portfolio of published pieces, got a second master’s degree, and jumped at the chance to teach an introductory journalism course at Boston University. I expected that I’d eventually land a full-time professorship and continue writing.

It didn’t turn out that way. I’ve been an adjunct for seven years, teaching what many schools consider a full course load: two or three classes per semester. Last school year, I spent 30 to 40 hours a week planning, teaching, meeting with students, writing recommendations, and grading for my gigs at Bentley and Boston University. In that time, I made a grand total of $27,300.

In spite of my paltry salary, whenever I saw that union rep on the Bentley quad, deep in conversation with a small crowd of adjuncts, I kept on walking, even though her pointed questions back in my classroom, within earshot of students, had touched a nerve. I was already self-conscious about my underpaid, unrecognized, non-status job. When people learned what I earned, they’d return a polite smile and silently compare my teaching career to their kids’ summer job. But it’s not like I wanted to talk to a stranger about it. Or did I?

 

Here it goes: My name is Lisa Liberty Becker, and I’m an adjunct professor. Everyone understands the professor part of my title; teaching is my passion. But the adjunct part (as in “add-junk”) removes all dignity from the equation. It classifies me as a contingent worker—hired and paid by the course, semester to semester, with no job security or paid benefits. If you’re into etymology, the word adjunct refers to something added to another thing, but not essential to it. Just like me.

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  • Vic Verbal

    Provocative assessment of academia’s dirty big secret. Not all labor injustice takes place in sweatshops — some of the most exploited workers are standing in front of your college student, conducting class right now!

  • BeekersNeeya

    I’ve known this for years. I have several friends with post graduate degrees who have been teaching at many of Boston’s finest colleges/universities for years. Some were professors who taught me in grad school, others friends of mine in grad school. It’s time to break the secret second society discrimination with a union. People don’t always feel comfortable voting a union in; it’s risky. Without risk, the chance of success in winning this battle is nil.

  • jimbo jones

    The story here is not one solely of the big bad university keeping adjuncts as indentured servants. Certainly they are taking advantage of a terrible labor market where there are too many PhDs but as a PhD one is in the top 1% segment of most educated people on Earth! The problem won’t go away until PhDs start saying “NO” to these terrible jobs. As long as some are willing to work for such terrible wages the situation won’t change. Maybe making better employment stats available will keep people out of PhD programs that offer nothing on the job market. Many academics forget that an academic job is still just a job and there are other things you can do with your time and effort, and that includes your time in grad school. No one blames society that blacksmiths don’t make great wages. There are too many PhDs and not enough demand for PhDs (in some fields). I will say the thing no English PhD wants to hear, a doctoral program in the humanities is a complete waste of effort if you think that degree is part of building a viable career. It may be worth while and of abstract value but it is of no economic value. And I have a humanities doctorate….

  • http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.ca/ Shawn Warren

    Unionization is not the answer. In fact unionization is a serious mistake that harms higher education and academic labour. This is so for at least four reasons:

    1) It perpetuates the use of unsustainable higher education institutions (HEIs). Unions only make sense where there are employers – in this case HEIs. But for many reasons this institutional model is not the only or best way to provide the service of higher education (http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/). The universities and colleges of this model are not higher education – they merely facilitate the education service relationship between academics and students. As facilitators they are expensive and limit the access that academics and students have to one another because they necessarily have limits on the available staff, faculty and space they can employ in facilitation.

    2) It raises the cost to provide higher education under the current institutional model. As this piece makes clear HEIs have turned to adjuncts because the cost to provide higher education under this model is high, whether it is properly funded by the public or not. If as employees adjuncts manage to secure through unionization increases institutional labour expenses such as pay, benefits, job security and the like, then the cost to provide higher education will obviously go up – an increased cost covered by public appropriations and student tuition.

    3) It is a partial solution. Labour unions by definition represent those academics who are hired/employed by HEIs such as universities and colleges. But of course this is a fraction of the number of Masters/PhD graduates who are qualified and want to earn a living providing higher education service. This necessarily means many individuals are excluded and will not be able to find academic work at all.

    4) It is a short-term solution. Technology in the hands of HEIs will displace the need of academics. From MOOCs to computer grading to artificial intelligence the number of academics required by institutions will decline – and as has occurred in other sectors unions are impotent to stop the replacement of human capital with electronic capital.

    I have an alternative solution that avoids all this. I invite collaboration and criticism: http://professionalsocietyofacademics.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-new-tender-for-higher-education.html

  • Julia Holcomb

    4 grand a course? 5 grand a course? Who on earth gets that much? $2400 is what I’m getting for 2 of the 5 classes I teach this semester. The other 3 classes pay $3000. And I live in a wealthy exurb. This is my 11th year.

    • redsongia

      Shameless. These schools often charge as much as 3400 to one student who takes your class.

  • Concerned American

    That increase in tuition costs is going to be a lot higher if unionizing happens at colleges and universities.

    • Lisa Liberty Becker

      Concerned American, that’s what administrators and other anti-union folks want you to believe, but it’s just not true. Trimming administrative bloat would work just fine.

      • Concerned American

        No, that’s what reality dictates in the absence of anything else. Unions would mean higher pay and more benefits if the numbers remain static – which means the cost of doing business rises.
        Of course, there could be cost-cutting measures as you now allude to – and that could include cuts to the number of adjuncts hired, too. When you raise the cost of something, as unions would do here, people find a way to use less of it with all other things being unchanged. Union supporters want people to believe that the only thing being changed is that some people are getting better pay and more benefits, but reality is a bit different.

  • MSD

    Wow! This is why adjuncts will never succeed. They are going after full time professors who by the way do get hired every year but the number of adjuncts is the result of oversupply. So these adjuncts want full time professors to pay for their miscalculated sins? WOW!

  • MSD

    And if full time professors want to save their jobs they need to unite NOW and kill these unions! They are terrible idea. Look what happened in NJ!

  • Dan Hirschhorn

    Great article! Thanks for all the inside info. I can’t imagine how you got so much personal experience data.
    The plight of adjuncts is not a gray issue. It’s an absurdity in black and white. It’s simple, like it was at the turn of the century and in third world countries today. If school management could get adjuncts to work free, they would. The history of managements’ view of labor starts with slavery. And it’s human nature. The management credo must be: “Whatever I can get away with, I will.” When someone has free reign to dominate abusively, they happily will do so. So the only way to win is to FIGHT back. That’s what unions are for, and the early faculty fighters, the first to battle, are likely to fall first.